Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Free Them All": End Mass Incarceration, End Cook County Jail Abuses

Warming up at the MCC
(Photo: Lee Klawans)
There must have been something about our ragtag assembly of noisemakers outside Cook County Jail on New Year's Eve that enraged the Sheriff's deputies, since they came charging out from their gate and found someone that they could swarm, pin up against the fence, and then drag into a waiting sheriff's car and into the very jail we were protesting against.

Could it have been the tuba?

Although I felt mildly sheepish marching along, twirling the end of a 40-ft. length of knotted sheet - our improvised symbol of liberation for the victims of America's prison-industrial complex - I also felt there was a kind of nobility in it. Sure, my little two-step was as much to keep warm in the post-sunset New Year's Eve cold as it was an expression of my defiant spirit ... but I guess the guys in the sheriff cars trailing us probably saw it as too much to tolerate.

(Photo: Lee Klawans)

And when we stood outside new building on the southeast corner of California and 28th, blowing on our kazoos and banging on pots and twirling our glow-in-the-dark wands, we could see prisoners in every window waving with gestures that can only described as joy. "Yes!" they seemed to be saying, "you haven't forgotten us!"

New Year's Eve, 12/31/2012, in Chicago
Cook County Jail inmates gather at windows to see what all the noise is about.

That sort of subverts the whole purpose of Cook County Jail, I suppose.

But more than anything else, I think it was our speech. I think it was the words we were saying. Here's what we were saying:
Free them all.

Yeah, that was definitely it: "Free them all."

Okay, so now that we're getting down to it, let's ask the question: What does it mean to stand outside Cook County Jail and say "Free them all"? Many of us in that assembly are supporters of a particular group of people being held at CCJ -- the NATO5 -- but all it takes is one not-so-short walk around the 96-acre complex to realize that "Cook" is about something much more.

The massive 96-acre Cook County Jail complex
Cook County Jail is the perfect example of the nationwide injustice that Michelle Alexander described in her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration, focused principally one people of color, in which "crimes" (often related to drug possession or other low-level offenses) become the mechanism for entrapping people in a cycle of incarceration that is brutalizing and often begins a downward spiral of lifetime discrimination.

A few facts (see "Population Dynamics and the Characteristics of Inmates in the Cook County Jail", February, 2012, by David E. Olson and Sema Taheri):

People of color constitute a wildly disproportionate part of admissions to CCJ: in 2011, the breakdown was African Americans 66.9%, Caucasians 13.5%, Hispanic/Other 19.6%. (Compare this to Chicago's city-wide demographics (2010): Black 36.8%, Hispanic/Other 30.4%, White 42.0%.) This means that if you are a person of color, you are 4.6 times more likely to be thrown into Cook than if you are white.

Cook is filled with people charged with low-level offenses, including 26.9% on drug charges, 15.4% on DUI/traffic charges, 17.9% on property charges. Over 70% are in for non-violent offenses. But once they are inside, they will learn plenty about violence:
In July 2008, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice released a report finding that the Eighth Amendment civil rights of the inmates has been systematically violated.[1][2] The report found that the CCJ failed to adequately protect inmates from harm or risk of harm from other inmates or staff; failed to provide adequate suicide prevention; failed to provide adequate sanitary environmental conditions; failed to provide adequate fire safety precautions; and failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care.

Specific alleged violations that have resulted in Federal sanctions and/or class action lawsuits include:
  1. Systematic beatings and rapings by corrections officers.
  2. Poor food quality.
  3. Inmates forced to sleep on cell floors due to overcrowding and mismanagement (resulting in a $1,000 per inmate class action settlement).
  4. Rodent infestation and injury caused to sleeping inmates by rat and mouse bites.
  5. Violations of privacy during multiple invasive strip searches.
  6. Failure to provide adequate medical care, including failure to dispense medications.
  7. Invasive and painful mandatory tests for male STD's (resulting in a $200 per inmate class action settlement).
  8. Unnecessarily long waiting time for discharge upon payment of bond, completion of sentence, or charges being dropped. Wait times are currently routinely in excess of 8 hours, nearly all of which is spent with many inmates packed into tiny cells.
(See: Wikipedia: Cook County Jail - U.S. Department of Justice report)
These facts can help the general public get their mind around the most disgusting fact of all about Cook County Jail: the role it plays in compelling defendants to take plea deals. The proposition is simple: take a plea, or rot in Cook waiting for a trial. (And, if you are convicted, the "trial penalty" will make sure your sentence is just not worth the risk.) To understand what this means, look at the fate of the small number of people who stick it out, waiting for trial - the average number of days they spent in Cook County Jail in 2010 was 285. That's 285 days of brutalization as the price for due process in Chicago.

Cook County Jail -- part of USA Prison Nation

So . . . about New Year's Eve . . . . Maybe we went a little far . . . .

Maybe a tuba and a drum and a saxophone was a bit bold . . . Maybe two scary black flags was a bit intimidating . . . .

Maybe the lengths of flowered sheets looked like they might be a match for the miles of concertina wire around the CCJ perimeter . . .

Maybe our words -- "Brick by brick, Wall by wall, Tear it down, Free them all" -- were annoying . . . .

But I can't help thinking that the more people hear about the New Year's Eve Noise Demonstration at Cook County Jail, the more people will be there with us next time. And the more people learn the facts about Cook, the more will be saying with us:

Free them all.

Update: March 17, 2016

Chicago voters denied incumbent states attorney Anita Alvarez another term, after a campaign by activists to change the way prosecutions are done in Chicago. (See "How Black Youth Helped Unseat Anita Alvarez and Transform the Face of Criminal Justice in Chicago" by Miles Kampf-Lassin in In These Times.)

Check out this new visual from the Prison Policy Initiative to get a sense of how jails are really used to break people down, and force pleas.

70% of people in local jails are not convicted of any crime.
(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Related posts

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(See When is Christianity Going Back to Being the Religion of "UN-entombment"?)

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Mayor and the City Council of the City of Chicago stand firm against all forms of torture and inhuman treatment, and hereby proclaim Chicago to be a torture free zone; and . . .

(See Chicago: A Torture-Free City?)

The biggest idea coming out of the 2013 Drone Summit? We will only deal successfully with the crimes being committed using drones when we understand them as part of the much larger war against communities of color . . . .

(See Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color )

Other related links

October 9, 2014 - "Expert: Cook County Jail one of the most dangerous in country" by Steve Schmadeke in the Chicago Tribune: "Detainees at the Cook County Jail face such an 'extremely high' risk of harm that the facility is one of the most dangerous in the country, a national expert on jail operations testified Wednesday, saying 'serious failures' in staff leadership are exacerbating the problem."

November 13, 2014 - "Tales differ on conditions at Cook County Jail" by Jason Meisner in the Chicago Tribune: This story ran in the print edition under the headline, "Cook jail: A model . . . or mayhem?": "In one court filing, the plaintiff's attorneys wrote that every day, the prisoners in those divisions 'face intolerable risk to life and limb.' ... Violence, the filing said, 'is so commonplace that the jail's motto could be "maim or be maimed."'" The article provides a timeline of court actions that have been undertaken to correct abuses at Cook County Jail, stretching back to 1967. Whether or not you agree with the prison experts who have recently concluded inspections of Cook County Jail (e.g. "David Shapiro, an attorney for the MacArthur center, said [. . .] 'The evidence shows that there are brutal, physical beatings and that the system of accountability for the officers has totally failed.'" and "Jeffrey Schwartz, a national expert on jail operations, testified last month . . . that videos show unacceptable uses of force by jail personnel." ); and whether or not you are troubled by the cavalier attitude of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart ("I have some idiots that still work for me. I haven't found all of them. I've got 7,000 employees, so I've got some awesome ones and I've got some idiots too."); it is clear that massive intervention of some kind is needed.